Archive for stars

Swinging Seniors: In Which Several Classic Era Movie Stars “Get With It” in the Age of Aquarius

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2017 by travsd

We are at an interesting historical moment. Baby Boomers, a generation which once pegged its identity to youth, are now Senior Citizens. But it’s become difficult to know what age means any more, in terms of cultural markers. Dignity was once a bellwether that was supposed to attach to age. The old acted one way (mature, serious, sedate, grounded), the young acted another way (unmoored, experimental, free). For a time, the difference was so pronounced they had a name for it: the Generation Gap. In the sixties you could actually generate comedy by having older people engage in the styles and practices of young people. The results were usually mortifying for all concerned. Here, for the mordbidly curious, are several moments from movies of the rock era where stars from Hollywood’s Classic Period found themselves mimicking the Now Generation.

Fred Astaire, Silk Stockings (1957)

An early entry. In the “Ritz Roll and Rock” number from Silk Stockings Fred Astaire does indeed sing a rock and roll song. It’s meant to be satirical but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate. At the end of the song he symbolically crushes his top hat, but he would never truly leave his old identity behind.

Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane song (1962)

To promote the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Bette Davis recorded this rock and roll song, and sang and danced to it on television. It’s all an intentional goof of course, not terribly different from “I’m Writing a Letter to Daddy” from the film itself.

Cary GrantCharade (1963)

This is the subtlest such moment on the list, one we’re apt to miss because Cary Grant is, well Cary Grant. But the star was nearing 60 at the time of the film’s release; the script has him self-reflexively making age jokes at his own expense throughout. In one scene, he goes to a nightclub with Audrey Hepburn, and they are drawn into an ice-breaking party game where everyone is meant to pass an orange to one another using any part of the body except the hands. It’s meant to show how awkward, square and prudish Cary is in comparison with the much younger Hepburn.

Shelley Winters, Wild in the Streets (1968)

Winters plays the mother of hippie demagogue Max Frost (Christopher Jones) in this classic sixties exploitation film. At first she is the typical nagging suburban number. But when Frost changes the culture, she changes with it, becoming a pot smoking hippie woman with predictably delightful results.

Ingrid Bergman, Cactus Flower (1969)

Bergman plays the middle age receptionist of married dentist Walter Matthau who has been seeing Goldie Hawn. Bergman wants him for herself of course. In one of the film’s more memorable moments Bergman joins Hawn on the dance floor and does the frug and other sixties dances. She is as stiff and awkward at it as you might imagine, lovely though she is. I couldn’t find a good clip of just the dance, but it’s worth watching the entire movie. It’s quite a time capsule and Hawn won an Oscar for her performance.

Bob Hope, How to Commit Marriage (1969)

In this all-star, complicated and slow moving farce, Bob Hope and Jane Wyman play a couple who are in the process of getting divorced, even as their daughter is in the process of getting married. In an attempt to infiltrate the culture of his new in-law, record producer Jackie Gleason, Hope dons hippie garb, including a Nehru jacket and jewelry. It’s a sight one wishes one could unsee.

Lana Turner, The Big Cube (1969)

In The Big Cube, a scheming lover slips some LSD to wealthy actress Lana Turner, making her an unwilling participant in the counterculture. As the photo above demonstrates, we all go along with her on her Bad Trip.

Ernest Borgnine, Bette Davis in “Bunny O’Hare” (1971″

Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis in Bunny O’Hare (1971)

In this low budget AIP special,  old folks Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis become a couple of robbers disguised motorcycle riding hippies.

After the ’70s something astonishing happened. The line between old and young (mature and immature) became blurred, or at any rate, most older people persisted in wearing the styles (and adopting the mores) of the young, and there were no longer any clear-cut markers. The political fruits of that revolution have been, in a word, disastrous. We’ll save that can of worms for another time and place.

The Moylan Sisters: The Angels of the Airwaves

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

July 16 was the birthday of Marianne Moylan (1930-90). Along with her sister Peggy Joan (1932-2002), she was part of the kiddie act The Moylan Sisters.

All of 7 and 5 when they made their debut on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, the girls were prized for their naturalness and purity. They sang beautifully and in nice harmony, but unlike most kiddie acts they were not precocious and show bizzy. They were real kids, not performing freaks. Their repertoire tells the tale; they did songs like “School Days”, “I Don’t Want  to Play in Your Yard” and “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-I.”  Billed as “The Cinderellas of Radio” and “The Angels of the Airwaves”, they also made records, live appearances and  several short films, including The Backyard Broadcast (1936), Starlets (1937), Toyland Casino (1937 — a Vitaphone, which is how I first learned of them), and World’s Fair Junior (1939). In 1939, they were given their own network radio show, which remained on the air through 1945. For a while the show was sponsored by Thrivo Dog Food. The Thrivo jingle which they sang was one of their most popular and well-known numbers. At one point, their show was the second most popular in the country, topped only by The Shadow.

The girls both seem to have retired from the business in the early 1950s. Born and raised in Sag Harbor, New York, the Irish Catholic children of an engraver at a watch factory. They attended school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Marianne married a local plumbing contractor in 1953 and became a homemaker, remaining in Sag Harbor. Peggy Joan married in 1955, also choosing the domestic life over a career. She moved to Maine for a time before returning to New York. Both women continued to sing in church after their professional retirement.

The act was parodied in the 1976 Broadway musical Annie as “The Boylan Sisters.”

For everything you need to to know about the variety arts, including kiddie acts, sister acts, and radio variety, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

7 Reasons Why 1917 Was the Most Auspicious Year in Silent Comedy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2017 by travsd
We are now midway through the centennial anniversary of what may have been silent comedy’s most auspicious year. Yes, there were other momentous events in other years. Mack Sennett started Keystone in 1912. Charlie Chaplin made his first film in 1914. The great comedy features by the silent masters were all made during the 1920s. But 1917 is notable for the number and diversity of its comedy milestones, all of which combine for a major league industry-wide wallop. These combined events were transformational, to put it mildly. Granted — the real story of 1917 was happening in Europe: America entered World War One and Russia was wracked by Revolution. But our more modest purview is the revolution in comedy. Consider:
1. 1917 was the second year of Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual period, during which he made four of his most perfect comedies. Easy Street (January), The Cure (April), The Immigrant (June), and The Adventurer (October). With these films Chaplin essentially perfected the form of the comedy short, influencing the work of comedians and directors for decades. People watch these comedy classics to this day. It’s true that his famous features were still ahead of him, but it can be truly said that the Mutual shorts are closer to those in quality than they are to his crude, early efforts. They represent a big leap forward.
2. In April, 1917, Buster Keaton stepped in front of the cameras for the first time, in the Fatty Arbuckle comedy The Butcher Boy. Keaton would come to prove himself silent comedy’s greatest genius (there I said it) within a few years. But the film is doubly significant for being Arbuckle’s first short made by his independent production company Comique, marking a great stride forward for him as well.
3. Stan Laurel (later of the team of Laurel and Hardy) released his first movie in July, 1917. We wrote about that film, Nuts in May, yesterday. 
4. In August 1917, Larry Semon, previously a director and gag man, began to star in his own Vitagraph comedies, becoming one of the top comedy stars of the late teens and early 20s — by some measures the top star during that period.

Before. After.

5. In September 1917, Harold Lloyd introduced his famous “glasses” character, in the short Over the Fence. Prior to this he had played a more clownish character called Lonesome Luke in his films. But it was his more realistic “boy with the glasses” character which would make him the top comedian of the 1920s.
6. In 1917, Mabel Normand (silent cinema’s top comedienne) filmed her first feature Mickey, released the following year. A smash hit, it too marked great strides forward for the early slapstick star. It was the high point of her career.
6. Towards the end of 1917, Mack Sennett  branded and began to hype his famous “Bathing Beauties”. This is what you might call a soft benchmark. He had presented early versions of this innovation in years previous. But from this point forward, he is more focused and aggressive about promoting the concept in his comedies.

Ben Turpin sends up Valentino in “The Shriek of Araby” (1923)

7. Also in 1917, Mack Sennett signed Ben Turpin, the famous cross-eyed comedian, who would become one of his top stars over the next decade.
For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy, including all these comedians, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

The Ten Most Influential Vaudevillians Of All Time

Posted in Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by travsd

In contrast with yesterday’s post, which reported who YOUR favorite vaudeville performers are, today we share a short list of those whom we deem to have cast the longest and widest shadows in terms of influence on the culture and on other performers. Many of these entertainers cast ripples that are still being felt today. We list them in no particular order. Just click on the links to learn more about the stars in question:

Weber and Fields: The mother of all comedy teams, they influenced acts as wide ranging as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and countless more. Plus, they went on to help found and shape the institution we now know as Broadway. PLUS, they were the first hugely successful Jews in American show business. Incalculably influential.

Lillian Russell: I had real difficulty deciding whom was the best female singing single to put here. Women were the biggest stars in vaudeville. There is a long chain of highly successful ones leading way back before vaudeville even existed. Where to cut it off? Who was most successful? Who was “Eve”? Two pre-vaudeville examples helped pave the way: Jenny Lind as the angelic type, who helped make it acceptable for “proper” ladies to attend the theater; and Lola Montez as the naughty type, who helped set the template for what stardom would be like. Lillian Russell merged aspects of both, and came along just as vaudeville was getting off the ground, and became Tony Pastor’s biggest star, and later starred with Weber and Fields. Her early advent, the scale of her stardom, and her colorful private life I think make her the most pivotal of the “singing comediennes.”

Al Jolson: People who know him only for The Jazz Singer don’t know the first thing about him. People seem to remember him only for wearing blackface** today, but blackface was near universal in his day. If anything, he is the pivotal figure in transitioning American show biz into its POST minstrelsy period. Just about every male singer of the first third of the 20th century (and many who came afterwards) patterned themselves after his big-over-the-top show biz style. Top star of Broadway, movies, and radio, for decades he was the entertainer all others were measured by.

Walker and Williams: This seminal African American vaudeville team are responsible for so many firsts: first to be stars in white vaudeville, first on Broadway, first to make record albums and movies. They popularized the cakewalk among whites as well as blacks. Many African American performers patterned themselves after this successful team, and you can see their influence in white comedy teams as well. When George Walker died an early death, Bert Williams went on to further triumphs as an artist and was widely admired by peers and audiences of all colors, in spite of the prejudices of the times.

Houdini: The great magician and illusionist was not only influential among his peers in the invention of new tricks, stunts and escapes, but he was a towering innovator in the field of self-promotion, one of the reasons his name remains a household word to this day. Houdini was so influential in his time, he had scores of imitators and even imposters using close variations on his name (e.g. “Boudini”)!

Frank Fay:  The reason you don’t see Bob Hope or Jack Benny here is that, influential though they were, they both patterned themselves after Frank Fay, widely heralded as the first modern stand-up comedian and m.c. Fay’s humor seems to have been anchored to his own era; what has survived doesn’t seem to have weathered the passage of time well, or in a way that we can understand. Nor was he able to become a major movie star like many of his peers and acolytes. But in his time he was considered King. The monologue at the top of every late night comedy tv show can be traced back to the Great Faysie.

Eva Tanguay: Tanguay pushed the envelope in terms of content, becoming notorious for both her onstage and offstage behavior, but in a way that was also kind of crazy and funny. Performers like Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan owed a lot to her. Oddly, Tangay may be even more influential in our time than in hers. Countless modern stars take the path blazed by Tanguay; in her own time few performers dared.

Fred Karno: Karno is the man who trained and developed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and dozens of others who are lesser known today, and so his impact extended well beyond the vaudeville stage — it would come to reach millions through motion pictures. Further, his “Speechless Comedians” were widely imitated on the stages of the day.

Vernon and Irene Castle: Vaudeville’s premier dance team, they were a downright craze in the teens, not only popularizing individual dance steps, but making dance (esp. modern styles) socially acceptable in the first place. Thus they were at the center in a cultural revolution. There were entire product lines with their branding on them

Gus Edwards: Edwards was the premiere producer of vaudeville kiddie acts. Not only were his sketches and productions widely imitated on vaudeville stages, but the young people he presented in those acts grew up to become stars themselves, among them people like Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Eleanor Powell, and dozens of others.

To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Mayer and Evans: The Cowboy and the Girl

Posted in Broadway, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Music, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

April 24 is the birthday of big band and jazz piano player Ray Mayer (Ray Maher, 1901-1949). Originally from Lexington, Nebraska, he started out in circuses and in some bands organized by trombonist and songwriter Larry Conley. In 1928, he teamed up with singer Edith Evans, whom he seems to have met while recording sides for Brunwsick Records. They were both high profile enough that they were able to play the Palace that year, and be featured in the Vitaphone shorts When East Meets West and  The Cowboy and the Girl, which is chiefly what they are known for today. The act is sort of like Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, but if Fields were much more like Will Rogers — a gun-chewing, wisecracking country bloke in chaps. And the gag is that Evans is more urban and sophisticated. It’s a good act, but 1928 was a terrible time to start a vaudeville act. Vaudeville was dead by 1932. The following year, the pair got married and retired the act.

Evans appears to have left the business at this point, but Mayer worked steadily. He appeared in scores of films until his death, often B movie westerns, mostly bit parts. And he’s in half a dozen Broadway shows from 1940 through 1946, including the original production of Louisiana Purchase and Eddie Cantor’s Banjo Eyes. Mayer died in 1949 while on traveling to a performance. More about the pair can be learned at JazzAge20s.com

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by travsd

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The company was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest studios, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at Universal’s various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save money, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s a great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, Arbuckle bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Mack Sennett also cut a deal to release his comedies through the studio starting in 1917, an arrangement that lasted until 1923, and was resumed 1932-1934.  Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians. Warner Brothers did end up making a major mark in the comedy business in the end — in the form of animated shorts, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Joan Crawford: From Sexpot to Psycho-Biddy

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2017 by travsd

To be born in the modern age is to discover many of the great figures of past ages backwards. We encounter them by reputation or in classrooms and we usually are introduced to them at their peak or in their maturity. As opposed to our ancestors who grew up with these figures and watched their lives and careers unfold in real, forward moving, chronological time.

Joan Crawford (ca. 1904-1977) was in the midst of retiring from picture-making just as I was becoming fully engrossed in Captain Kangaroo. Furthermore, she is best known for what used to be called “Women’s Pictures” — delaying any real interest on my part for decades. Some males go to their graves successfully avoiding submitting themselves to such melodramas their entire lives, and quite happily. It’s no accident that the first Joan Crawford movie I ever saw was a western, the all-butch-lady showdown picture with Mercedes McCambridge known as Johnny Guitar (1954). I had to have been in my late twenties by then. I’d seen scores of movies starring other classic Hollywood stars by then. But not Crawford.

But I did know about her. You could say that my first “encounter” with Crawford, as it was for many people my age, was at second and third and fourth hand in the form of the world’s first psycho-biddy bio-pic Mommie Dearest (1981). This naturally led to awareness of “middle period” Crawford, the iconic Mildred Pierce era persona. When you think “Joan Crawford”, I imagine that’s the incarnation most people think of.

But the monstrous campy child-beating monster Crawford we meet in Mommie Dearest leads inexorably to an exploration of LATE career Crawford, her horror phase, starting with the best known of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and including The Caretakers, in which she played a sadistic madhouse nurse (1963), Straight-Jacket (1964), the Hitchcock-esque Della (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk (1967), Eyes (her 1969 Night Gallery episode directed by Steven Spielberg) and the hallucination inducing caveman-exhumation flick Trog (1970). Thus the Joan Crawford I came to know best first was a kind of grotesque freak show version, a warped parody of whatever star she had originally been. We wrote about several of these pictures here. 

What use have I for a flesh-and-blood man when I now have one of these?

Over the years I also managed to fill in the middle period, the ’40s and ’50s, the battle ax years, when we often catch remnants and intimations of the great beauty she had been, but there is also a sort of steam-roller quality and a mannishness not unlike that of some of her contemporaries, like Rosalind Russell  all furry eye brows, handshakes, and padded shoulders. This period starts with a couple of (uncharacteristic) comedies, The Women (1939) and Susan and God (1940). I’ve also seen Strange Cargo (1940), Mildred Pierce, Possessed, which paves the way for the craziness of the late period (1946), Flamingo Road (1949), Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves (1956), and The Story of Esther Costello (1957). These movies, too, are all a sort of confirmation of what we gather about her movie career from Mommie Dearest; an aging beauty, usually pretty intense and crazy, sometimes dishing out the terror and antagonism, sometimes being on the receiving end. You don’t tend to see her playing Madame Curie. 

Still, something major was missing: a good third of her career. You hear it alluded to in Mommie Dearest and in other whisperings of the Crawford legend. And what you hear, based on what you know from the latter two-thirds, you don’t quite believe. And that’s this hard-to-credit, EARLY phase when she was one of the very top stars in Hollywood and a legendary beauty and vamp. Somehow one never SAW those movies, so talk about them was just so many words. But in the last few years I’ve managed to catch many of them on TCM. I’m not sure I ever would have got around to them, but the Mad Marchioness made a special point and I am grateful, for they were most illuminating. They are mostly films from the silent and pre-code eras at MGM.

I had seen one her earliest films Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) with Harry Langdon many years ago, but this isn’t too educational. She is the leading lady (barely into her twenties) but she scarcely seems herself at all. She hasn’t yet acquired much personality or sex appeal. And she also stars in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney, and that too I had seen.

But that’s not what everyone is talking about. Young Lucille Leseuer (her real name) had been a dancer and chorus girl, and it’s roles that showed her off in THAT context that made her a star as one of the key Jazz Age movie flappers in pictures like Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), Paris (1926), The Taxi Dancer (1927), Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929).

Then come talkies. In Untamed (1929) she plays a wild girl from South America. In Montana Moon (1930) a party girl socialite who must be “broken in” by her cowboy husband. Our Blushing Brides (1930), and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) revisit themes of her most popular silents.

Quite naturally she’s in the ensemble picture Grand Hotel (1932), that was one of the first of these I’d seen, as was her unfairly maligned performance in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932).

“Chained”, 1934

There’s a bunch more like this. I’ve seen about a half dozen others, usually with Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery as her co-stars and she’s usually either a dancer or a secretary and the stories are racy and involve infidelity, or money schemes, because it’s before the implementation of the Production Code.

These early movies fill in a vital piece of the puzzle. Crawford started out her career as a straight-up cinematic object of desire. Familiarity with the Siren she once was sheds light on the numerous husbands, the countless romances with co-stars and others, and her legendary negotiating prowess on the casting couch. (Some of have suggested an arrest record for prostitution, as well). Later, when year by year that part of her appeal drains away, she seems to be compensating, like you do when you limp. Her intensity becomes such that she seems almost to be trying to draw people to her with her STRENGTH, with her MENTAL POWER, with her WILL, with something. It’s kind of Norma Desmond-y, and any way you slice it the resemblance is not an irrelevant coincidence.

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We are watching Jessica Lange’s portrayal of her on the new FX show Feud: Bette and Joan now with great interest. An unusual beauty herself (she still is!) Lange seems to grasp this aspect of Crawford’s motive power, and many other subtle things, including the very careful self-taught diction. Young Lucille had grown up in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri, you see, and originally had a regional accent, which she lost through application and hard work…like everything she did.

And so you see we have worked our way backwards to her origins. Today is her birthday. Wherever she is, I bet she’s limiting herself to two bites of cake.

(P.S. Another midwife for my appreciation of Crawford has been friend Lance Werth, who actually MAJORED in Crawford at college, and writes the terrific blog Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary. He wrote this appreciation of the star there yesterday as well).

 

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